The crystalline wall
Shyness is a part of being human. The world would be a more insipid, less creative place without it
17 July 2013
Aeon Magazine | www.aeonmagazine.com
More recently, shyness, like other awkward personality traits, has been seen as an affliction to be treated medically rather than as a temperamental quirk. In 1971, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, with student volunteers acting as prisoners and guards in a pretend prison in the basement of the Stanford University psychology building. The study had to be stopped a week early because the guards were treating the prisoners so brutally, and many of the inmates had adapted by internalising their subordinate positions and sheepishly obeying their tormentors. Zimbardo began thinking of shy people as incarcerating themselves in a silent prison, in which they also acted as their own guards, setting severe constraints on their speech and behaviour that were self-imposed although they felt involuntary.
In 1972, Zimbardo began conducting the Stanford Shyness Survey, starting with his own students and eventually including more than 10,000 interviewees. The odd thing about Zimbardo’s work was that it revealed that feeling shy was very common — more than 80 per cent of those interviewed said they had been shy at some point in their lives, and more than 40 per cent said they were currently shy — but that it also pioneered the modern tendency to see shyness as a remediable pathology. Methods of calibrating shyness were developed, such as the Cheek and Buss Shyness Scale (after its Wellesley College researchers Jonathan Cheek and Arnold Buss) in 1981, and the Social Reticence Scale, formulated by the psychologists Warren Jones and Dan Russell in 1982. Extreme shyness was redefined as ‘social anxiety disorder’, and drugs such as Seroxat (also known as Paxil), which works like Prozac by increasing the brain’s levels of serotonin, were developed to treat it. As Christopher Lane argues forcefully in his book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness (2007), this was part of a more general biomedical turn in psychiatry, with its ‘growing consensus that traits once attributed to mavericks, sceptics, or mere introverts are psychiatric disorders that drugs should eliminate’.
In 1999, noting that the number of people identifying as shy in his survey had risen to 60 per cent, Zimbardo told the British Psychological Society that we were on the cusp of ‘a new ice age’ of non-communication. Computers, email and the replacement of cashiers and shop assistants by cashpoint machines and automated checkouts were all contributing to what he called an ‘epidemic’ of shyness as the possibilities for human contact diminished. Shyness, he suggested, was no longer an individual problem; it was now a ‘social disease’.
Today Zimbardo’s prediction of a new ice age created by technology seems wide of the mark. On the contrary, the rise of social networking has made it normal for people to lay bare their private lives without inhibition online, from posting photos of themselves in states of inebriation to updating the world on their changing relationship status, in ways that would have seemed inconceivable a generation ago. The internet, far from cutting us off from each other, has simply provided more fodder for our own era’s fascination with emotional authenticity and therapeutic self-expression — a shift in public attitudes towards personal privacy that Eva Illouz, professor of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has called ‘the transformation of the public sphere into an arena for the exposition of private life’.
In her recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), Susan Cain worries about a world ruled by what she calls the ‘extrovert ideal’. This, she suggests, found its most malign expression in the excessive risk-taking of those who brought about the banking crisis of 2008. Much of Quiet consists of telling introverts how wonderful they are: how we think more deeply and concentrate better than extroverts, are less bothered about money and status, are more sensitive, moral, altruistic, clear-sighted and persistent. If you’re an extrovert, the book probably isn’t for you.
Yet introversion is not the same as shyness, as Cain is careful to point out, although the two do often overlap. Introverts are people whose brains are overstimulated when in contact with too many other human beings for too long — in which case I am most definitely a shy introvert. If I’m in a noisy group of people for more than about an hour, my brain simply starts to scramble like a computer with a system error, and I end up feeling mentally and physically drained. Introverts such as me need to make frequent strategic withdrawals from social life in order to process and make sense of our experiences.
Shyness is something different: a longing for connection with other people which is foiled by fear and awkwardness. The danger in simply accepting it, as Cain urges us to do with introversion, is that shyness can easily turn into a self-fulfilling persona — the pose becomes part of you, like a mask that melds with your face. There is always something we cling to in an unhappy situation that stops us escaping from it. In my case, it is the belief that lots of voluble people do not really listen to each other, that they simply exchange words as though they were pinging them over a tennis net — conducting their social life entirely on its surface. A small, self-regarding part of me thinks there is something glib about easy articulacy and social skill.
My more sensible self realises this is nonsense, and that shyness (or, for that matter, non-shyness) has no inherent meaning. There is nothing specific to shyness that makes you more likely to be a nice person, or a good listener, or a deep thinker. Shyness might have certain accidental compensations — being less susceptible to groupthink and more able to examine the habits and rituals of social life with a certain wry detachment, perhaps. Mostly it is just a pain and a burden.
Yet shyness remains a part of being human, and the world would be a more insipid, less creative place without it. As Cain argues, we live in a culture that values dialogue as an ultimate ideal, an end in itself, unburdening ourselves to each other in ever louder voices without necessarily communicating any better. Shyness reminds us that all human interaction is fraught with ambiguity, and that insecurity and self-doubt are natural, because we are all ultimately inaccessible to one another. The human brain is the most complex object we know, and the journey from one brain to another is surely the most difficult. Every attempt at communication is a leap into the dark, with no guarantee that we will be understood or even heard by anyone else. Given this obdurate fact, a little shyness around each other is understandable.
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the upside to being an introvert